By Pierre 'Piet' MICHIELS with particular thanks to Phil BALL for the translation
From take-off to landing, at times for as long as ten hours, the gunners are constantly rotating the turrets, scanning the surrounding blackness, quarter by quarter, for the grey shadow that could instantly be an attacking enemy night fighter. During an operation, the only sounds the gunners would hear, aside from the constant deafening roar of the engines, would be the hiss of the oxygen and the occasional crackling, distorted voices of other crewmembers in their earphones. The mid-upper gunner spends the trip suspended on a canvas sling seat that can be disconnected when getting in or out of the turret. His lower body is in the draughty fuselage and his head in the perspex dome. It is a lonely position removed from the proximity of other crew.On the evening of 13 July 1943, the crew of Lancaster DS690 consists of young men some of whom have flown together for over three months, some for two months and one just for a month.
Unlike the overwhelming majority of heavy bomber crews that are created upon arrival in the Operational Training Unit (OTU), two thirds of the crew was created at the end of training and supplemented, when they joined the operational squadron, by the arrival of a new mid-upper gunner, a new bomb aimer, and when converting to a new aircraft and squadron a new flight engineer.
With one exception the crew members were initially trained on the Halifax Mk.II bomber equipped with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. They enhanced their training in the first part of their operational tour with 10 Squadron. Flying together since they met in the O.T.U. and then with 10 Squadron from April 1943, the pilot R.A.G. BAIRD, his navigator W.J.M. MOORCROFT, his wireless operator E. SMITH, and his rear gunner H. MATTHEWS, with three other airmen, formed the crew of one of the many RAF bombers.
While on the first solo operation against STETTIN on April 20th 1943, their bomber has been intercepted by a night fighter, fortunately without damage.
After an operation of mine laying in the Estuary of Hornsee, their participation in the raid on Essen was aborted due to the malfunction of the oxygen system.
During the operation against DORTMUND on May 4th they were coned over the target by search lights and held for 7 minutes…Their aircraft was hit several times by flak.
A week later, due to severe icing of the wings, they did not take part in the raid against Duisburg and turned back home.
In May 1943, Ben ROBINSON joined the crew of S/L BAIRD undertaking flying on Halifax aircraft with missions lasting from between 3 and 8.35 hours and Ben is the Mid Upper Gunner, located on the top of the aircraft. A report of the Bochum operation notes:…Halifax II “g” Type … height 19,000 feet, TAS 224 m.p.h. Time 02.00 hours. No searchlights or flak. Visibility good, moon to starboard quarter. Rear Gunner sighted twin engined unidentified aircraft same height, 300 yards on reciprocal course to port quarter. Rear gunner fired two-second burst but no strikes observed. Enemy aircraft lost to sight. Rear gunner fired approximately 100 rounds…
Meanwhile, the crew had also bombed DORTMUND on May 23th. S/Ldr BAIRD is already known to be an exceptional pilot, bringing back his heavy bomber with leaves and debris from tree branches inside engine covers, due to very low flight. It was noticed for the first time by the mechanics, with a mix of horror and respect, after the raid against STETTIN.
All these raids were performed on Halifax Mk.II, mainly on JB910 R for Roger.
At the end of May 1943, after the death of one of the officers commanding 115 Squadron, the opportunity will arose for S/Ldr BAIRD, who has already flown his 40th operation, to move with his crew to 115 Squadron which has recently converted to the brand new Lancaster Mk.II fitted with Bristol Hercules engines.
The mid-upper gunner, an Australian N.A.B. ROBINSON flew with 10 Squadron from February 1943 under the command of Flight Lieutenant Munro. He took part in nearly 20 raids on LORIENT, TURIN, WILLEMSHAVEN, NUREMBERG, KOLN, St NAZAIRE, BERLIN, HAMBURG, ESSEN, STUTTGART, PILSEN, DUISBURG and BOCHUM. He joins the crew of S/Ldr BAIRD in mid-May 1943 for three operations to replace the previous mid-upper gunner retired from active duty due to illness.
The bomb aimer R. WALKER also flew, from January 1943, with 10 Squadron on a Halifax bomber but with another crew. Mainly in the company of pilot Flight Sergeant Vinish and with nearly 25 missions to his credit, he repeatedly participated in the bombing of LORIENT, TURIN, WILLEMSHAVEN, ESSEN, NUREMBERG, MUNCHEN, STUTTGART, DUISBURG and BERLIN. At the time he had more than 210 night hours and 160 hours of daylight flying hours of operation logged. He temporarily leaves 10 Squadron in late March 1943, probably being provided with voluntary operational flight training on the new bomb aiming system SBS Mk.IVX.
After the previous bomb aimer had unexpectedly left the squadron, Sgt WALKER takes over and joins the core crew of Squadron Leader BAIRD on his return to 10 Squadron in May 1943. He then follows the crew when transferred to 115 Squadron at the end of that month.
The flight engineer J.E.C. ODENDAAL, who is qualified on the Bristol Hercules engines fitted to the Lancaster Mk. II, flies with 115 Squadron from April 1943. Under the command of Flying Officer Brown, he carries out operations on the Gironde estuary, DUSSELDORF and ESSEN. He completes the crew that arrives at East-Wretham in the first days of June 1943.
But let’s go back to the training period. To an imaginative child of the 30’s, brought up after World War l, the possibility of going to war at the controls of an aircraft, has great appeal. In any case, it is much more appealing than a commitment to a conventional war.
With the outbreak of war, the R.A.F. retains this attraction for a few months, thanks to the prowess of its fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain. Masking brilliant technical capabilities, most of these pilots appear carefree and look like modern day knights.
Fighter Command of the R.A.F. cannot however prevent the Blitz.
Because, with the evolution of the war, Bomber Command crystallizes the need for an air force with long-range attack capabilities. "Fighters will never win the war alone," they say in Whitehall. However, in 1940 and 1941, the aircraft of Bomber Command, although technically good, can’t live up to the tasks required from the crews. Moreover the aircraft are big, fat, utilitarian and frankly inadequate. In short, they are not very glamorous or attractive in the eyes of an adventurous young man at that time. There is nothing better to volunteer for in the R.A.F. than Fighter Command.
The style is rather democratic and popular within Bomber Command. We can, perhaps, even view these young men as being more team players than possibly the more individualistic pilots required at the controls of Spitfires and Hurricanes.
Like the fighter pilots, the bomber crews come from all social strata of British society.
For instance, the scottish pilot, The Honourable Robert Alexander Greville BAIRD is the youngest son of Sir John Baird, the first Viscount Stonehaven, former Minister of Industry and Transportation, former Governor-General of Australia and former Chairman of the British Conservative Party.
For his part, Harold MATTHEWS is one of 11 children (five boys and six girls) born in Croydon Surrey. During the war all five boys serve in the forces, the eldest Bert in the army and serve in North Africa with the Eighth Army, Tony in the navy, Jack in the Middlesex Regiment, Frank in the merchant navy, and Harold in the RAF. Before his enlistment, Harold went to St. Andrew's Church of England school in Croydon and was an apprentice engineering pattern maker.
Crew members come from all over the Empire. For example, the flight engineer, Ernest Johannes Conraad ODENDAAL comes from Northern Rhodesia. Probably cheating on his age he enlists in the first hour of the war and is not 18 when he embarks on the SS Warwick Castle at Durban, before arriving in Liverpool on 12 August 1940 via Cape Town.
And the mid-upper gunner Auber Benjamin Nicholas ROBINSON, an Australian, is a bank employee who signs up in Perth, Australia, with the No. 4 Recruitment Centre in late March 1941. Following the outbreak of war, Ben joined the Royal Australian Air Force and is accepted on 11 March 1941. He is ordered to report to the recruitment office on 31st March 1941 and allocated the service number 406795. He trains at Pearce air force base. One night while writing home he notes that spirits are high. It is expected that while things are not going well in Europe, things are ‘…going to get better when the 13th course from Pearce get over there and .(fix) some huns up, & I’ll consider give them the lot once I get one in my gun sights.’
Of course, any position requires a test and the first selection is made based on a maths test and general knowledge. But as one official said, the main point is "the desire to fly and fight, but in that order."
The case of the pilot R.A.G. BAIRD is unusual because at 33 he is the oldest of the crew and he also had a military career. After attending Eton College, one of the two most prestigious Public Schools in England, he then joined the Army and attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst where he passed out as a Second Lieutenant. Posted to the prestigious Gordon Highlanders Regiment, he is promoted to Lieutenant and sent to India, being for a time ADC of the Viceroy, Lord Willingdon.
But the ceremonial of HQ life soon stifles him and he does not miss any opportunity of poking fun at ceremonial aspects of the orderly social life in New Delhi. He will pay a high price for such disrespect in trying to stir up the conventional life of the Army’s Senior officers. One of his superiors quotes that he has a very unusual character with a strong and sometimes excessively strong, sense of humour. He hates pomp and ceremony.
He needs action. Resigning from his command in New Delhi, R.A.G. BAIRD has foreseen the emergence of modern long range attack capability: the Air Force. Back in England, he has then already joined the R.A.F. in October 1937, after being a military adviser for a while in the movie industry in Hollywood, USA.
After qualifying on multiple types of aircraft in various Flying Training Schools, n°8, n°6 and n°13 in UK, he is posted as instructor in FTS n°12 in Grantham.
When the war breaks out, R.A.G. BAIRD is already 30, he is married and soon will be a father for the first time.
The need for training more and more pilots overseas is planned by some of the RAF Authorities and in July 1940, BAIRD is sent to South Africa where he is flying instructor for trainees within the Empire Training Scheme in SFTS n°1 in Kimberley up to October 1940 and to AONS n°5 in Oudtshoorn, up to his posting in bomber operational squadrons in the Middle-east from September 1941.
He is not the only one wanting to hit back after the first bombing of British cities and the flood of volunteers never runs dry.
The future wireless operator Edwin SMITH enlists on the eve of Christmas 1940 at the n°1 Recruits Center in Uxbridge near London.
Johannes ODENDAAL started his training in August 1940 at the Aviation Mechanic II Tech Training School, Innsworth, Gloucester. He is then quickly assigned to the 602 Fighter Squadron "City of Glasgow" and participates as a gunner in the Battle of Britain. He just turned 18 when he received the ribbon of the Battle of Britain, being one of the few 3.000 allowed to wear the famous clasp. He then joined the 11 TTS for training and follows the course for chief engineers and fitters before joining the 266 Fighter Squadron "Rhodesia". Changes are rapid, the administration of the RAF then acting urgently to respond to the multiple needs of squadrons
Ben ROBINSON was born on 15 March 1912 at Cottesloe, Western Australia. Ben’s father was a post master.
Ben attended Pingelly State School (1918-1927) and Perth Boys School, leaving at age 15 years. At 5’11 ½ (181,6 cms), he is tall and very athletic, weighing 152 pounds (68,9 kgs). He is proficient in golf, Australian Rules Football, tennis and running. In answer to a question later on his Application for Air Crew about the particular of Sport and Games played, he notes Played most of them. Surviving golf score cards records professional scores at the West Australian Golf Club and he won the finals of the club championships at the Carnarvon Golf Club for 1937. Playing football, he is continually referred to in local newspapers as playing a key role in many of the goals or points scored.
After school, Ben joins the Union Bank of Australia Ltd., obtaining referees statements from the Pingelly local member for the WA Legislative Assembly as thoroughly honest, studious and reliable young man keenly interested in his work and of temperate habits, from the local Justice of the Peace as good character and respectful, from the Church of England rector as straightforward and upright & bright disposition, a boy of strong character. He starts work in Pingelly, and is there at least during 1928 to 1932. He is posted to Kalgoorlie and then to Carnarvon. In 1937, he seems to have been in the bank at Dunedin, New Zealand. While there he compiles a short booklet with drawings of ‘Maoriland’ in a manner, more of a doodling piece than serious authorship, suggesting he had spare time to fill at work. In 1938, Ben is back in Carnarvon.
Described as having a very good appearance, manner, and personality, and also a quick typist and skilful, he will be given satisfactory evaluations during his 15 years career with the Bank. Still single, it seems as if life stifles him as he enrols in the Reserve in September 1940. When 29, Nicholas “Ben” ROBINSON then enlists in the Royal Australian Air Force on 31st March 1941.
Further, at the time of its greatest losses in early 1944, Bomber Command will be able to instantly replace lost crew with a reserve of about 28% covering all disciplines. In just under five years of war 8,403 are injured and 9,838 detained as prisoners of war. 55,573 are killed representing nearly 50% of the total. Their life expectancy is 21 missions, less than their aircraft which have an estimated life of 26 missions. It also represents a figure lower than that for a British private on the banks of the Yser in 1916.
Meanwhile, for the other members of the crew, the long road to an operational squadron therefore invariably begins with a visit to the recruiting office. Only volunteers are posted to the R.A.F. and they have no idea as to their final posting.
After a brief interview, it’s time to fill out academic and medical questionnaires. For example Robert WALKER, the future bomb aimer, is a particularly gifted young man. At 11, he won a scholarship to King William's College, Isle of Man and from there entered a law office. He too does not hesitate to volunteer. Perhaps he is one of those for whom the prospect of flying a fighter is attractive but those days are gone. The future is in long range attack. The future is in Bomber Command.
The training itself is quite long and takes between 12 and 30 months before being transferred to an operational squadron. Edwin SMITH is posted to n°10 Signals Recruits center in Blackpool on April, 17th, 1941 before joining the n°2 Signals Schools in Yatesbury, Wiltshire in August of the same year.
We have seen that the R.A.F. does not initiate the air war until late 1942 and will only undertake the occasional raid on behalf of Bomber Command. Only with the advent of the four-engine heavy bombers is the organisation able to efficiently provide an uninterrupted flow of trained crews.
For his part, having supported for a year the training of multiple young pilots in South Africa, P/O BAIRD is delighted to be posted in Kabrit, Egypt at the end of 1941, with 70sqn and soon after in 148sqn equipped with Wellington twin engines bombers. From November 1941, piloting a Wellington, he is taking part in bombing operations against the Axis forces based in North Africa. In Egypt, he meets F/O RAINSFORD, then acting as Sqn/Ldr in 148sqn. This one states that ‘Jock’ BAIRD is a superb pilot… He is the most tremendous fun and his keenness for operational flying and his natural gift for leadership make him a most valued, if somewhat unconventional, member of the 148 squadron…
Promoted to the rank of Flying Officer, he flies more than 30 bombing operations over Berka, Derna, Benghazi, Sirte, Salamis and Tobrouk. He also flies supply dropping operations over occupied northern Greece and Crete. His logbook indicates a total of more than 2,000 flying hours on the eve of autumn 1942, mostly on twin engines Wellingtons and already a few over Tobrouk as second pilot on four engined Halifaxes.
His friend RAINSFORD adds that Jock hates anyone he thinks is not genuinely trying to get on with the war and he hates most staff officers. Sometimes, I had to tell him to cool it a bit, as on one occasion, he goaded a senior army officer in Cairo, telling him that it was time he saw the light and joined the RAF !
Propaganda, such as the film ‘Target for Tonight’, will also play an important role. The posters present proud pilots, the glorious successors of those who saved the country in late summer 1940. The former defended the U.K. The latter will carry the war into the heart of Germany. However, it soon becomes clear to most young volunteers, that the activities of a bomber, in addition to the latent danger and stress, may be repetitive and perhaps rather tedious. Some will be disappointed as the choice of postings is decided by the hierarchy. Gone to drive a race car, they are disappointed to find themselves driving a truck.
After initial tests, the volunteers are sent to an Air Crew Selection Centre for qualifying after more medical and academic tests. For example, the future navigator William James MOORCROFT enlists at the beginning of April 1941, joining the ACSC No. 1 at Lord's Cricket Ground in London in late July 1941. After tests and interview, applicants are granted an R.A.F. number. Pending their joining up, most are returned to their previous occupations with the following statement: Do not call us, we will call you. As needed, some are sent for a month to the Aircrew Reception Centre to receive their basic military training.
W.J. MOORCROFT is sent at the beginning of August 1941 to ITW No. 7 in Cornwall. Then, like him, all attend the Initial Training Wing/School for a period of two months, with formal training on aviation, weather and morse code. The requirements are demanding - the minimum score required is 80%. At the end of the ITW/S they are allowed to wear R.A.F. uniform.
Ben ROBINSON trains at RAAF Ballarat, and Port Pirie, SA studying radio operations, bombing and gunnery, navigation. His role is as an air gunner and he goes to Evan’s Head, NSW. Training was intense at Ballarat. ‘…time is very scare here, even at night we have classes, & go flat out from 6.30 am to 9 at night…he states in a letter written in morse code as a lesson. While at the No.1 Wireless Air Gunners’ School at Ballarat, Ben found time on weekends to visit Ballarat and Melbourne, as well as to socialise. From Ballarat he was moved to a base about 10 miles out on the Northern line above the Lane Cove River where water was rationed because of drought ‘…the worst drought they have ever had..’ with rations not only for water but matches and cigarettes. But the drought broke and Ben notes we have at last had a good rain in Sydney and the place for a couple of days was very muddy & wet, one chap I was with one night & it had been raining all day & was very dark, we knew there was a trench around somewhere & were going very (carefully) feeling our way, because we did not want to break our necks in it. This chap suddenly said ‘here we are, here is a track’. So we started off to get on the track, just then there was a bump & a splash & a lot of cursing & swearing & here was our friend in the bottom of the trench half drowned & covered in mud, it was half filled with water, we cried ourselves laughing & had to get him half out & then he slipped back in again & we just couldn’t help him anymore. He was very irate at our convulsions & when we saw his uniform in the light we started off again, you could hardly see any blue at all it was all muddy clay.
The first posting is then decided, the paths separating depending on whether one has been chosen to become a pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, radio operator, flight engineer or gunner.
For example W. J. MOORCROFT, at first a trainee pilot, is sent to the No. 50 Flying Training Group in October 1941 before going to Canada and the United States under the Arnold Scheme. He embarks on HMTS Pasteur, a cruise ship seized from the French after it had conveyed the gold of the Banque de France to Canada. Failing his pilot tests, he is posted to a navigator’s instruction unit in March 1942 and completes his training in late July 1942, before returning to England in September of that year. It has to be said that most who fail their pilot training are channelled back into another aircrew category. At its peak in late 1943, the R.A.F. has 333 training centres scattered across the British Isles, Australia, South Africa, Rhodesia, India and especially Canada, where there are more than 100.
The future bomb aimer R. WALKER is also initially sent to pilot training in Georgia, United States, before failing the final exam with a mark of ‘only’ 99%. He is re-directed to a navigator-bomb aimer training unit in Ontario, Canada. The criteria are overly stringent and although his disappointment was great, he recognizes that like many others undergoing training from the other side of the Atlantic, it's a bit like going from monochrome to Technicolor.
For his part, the future flight engineer Johannes ODENDAAL is meanwhile transferred to 44 Squadron bomber "Rhodesia" at Waddington where he is a ground mechanic on twin engines Hampdens. He also wants to fly and why not to become a pilot. He is 19 when he joined the OTU Pilot's Course in Brighton but fails to selection tests. Probably disappointed, he then follows a gunner training in 1483 Gunnery School, Newmarket
Ben ROBINSON embarks for the United Kingdom on 30 March 1942 travelling by ship via the Panama Canal. He arrives in the UK on 11 May 1942 and is attached to 3PRC, 7AGS on June 1942 and 10th Squadron on July 14th, 1942. The group he trained with in Australia are all split up to different stations. There is more training in England upon arrival but Ben manages to visit UK. I fear a lot of my mail is down at the bottom of the ocean. Well we had a long stay at Bow.. on the South Coast, & it was most enjoyable…I had a lot of good trips in the country from there, just about all over Hampshire, the New Forest & a host of historical places, met a lot of fine people…we went to Wales to do a refresher course at …Portcawl..(then up the beautiful Rhona Valley where the (film) & the book ‘How Green was my Valley’ was set. I like Wales and Welsh people a lot, the Australians are popular with them, because on Saturday night, the miners & the Aussies always have a good go at one or another & a Welshman likes a good fight & the honours are just about even, everyone parts the best of friends, they like our guts, & we like them, because they take you home and give you a damn good feed, & believe me its good, when you can get it. Went to Cardiff…the Wales people have great voices & we have many a good night listening to the miners in the pubs…since being in England we have had some Gerry bombs falling around us, but they did not do us any harm, they certainly put the wind up you, & make an awful din & I’d sooner listen to the trams rattling up Hay Street (in Perth), & they make enough noise….one thing I want when I get home…is a good feed of steak & eggs, one never sees it here.
He is posted to no 10 Squadron at the RAF base at Leeming, Yorkshire on 8 August 1942. In a letter from RAAF Melbourne, Yorkshire dated 24 Sept 1942, Ben recounts his first bombing raid over Germany. I have just returned from 12 days leave. We got this leave because we crashed…. No doubt you would like to hear my experience and opinion of my first raid on Germany. Well here it is. It was one of the big raids on a pretty hot target, that is there is plenty of opposition. We left base at about 10 p.m. and very dark, and in no time we were stooging across the North Sea. Had a good supper before we left, (eggs, or egg-on-toast) and were feeling in good trim and very much awake as you have to be on these trips, because you never know when a jerry night fighter, and something to be very careful of, will come out of a dark patch of sky and catch you with your pants down, as the saying is. We made the enemy coast without incident, and were right on our toes now, as search-lights began their stuff. There were not very many fortunately, and as you can see them a long way off we had no troubles dodging around them. You never know at the same time when one will come on directly under you, but this time they didn’t. We were keeping extra good watch now for fighters, and I don’t think any of us closed our eyes even to blink, a few bits of flak were fired at us but not anything serious. We were over enemy territory and if there is a black-out in Germany its pretty poor, because we saw numerous lights, and in the distance a dull glow in the sky. That was our target. As we got closer we could see the red of the fires and it was pretty hard to take our eyes off it, but had to because our job was to scan the sky for fighters, the bogie of the bomber boys. Anyhow after a bit longer, we could see that the target was well on fire and our bomb-aimer in front said in an awed sort of voice – “Look at those bloody fires”. We were over the target now and the fun started, or had started before we got there. The sky was ablaze of search lights, like long avenues of trees and we started weaving like hell to dodge them, because if you go in them you’re a gone coon. One actually caught us but failed to hold us, and the inside of the plane was as light as day. Hell was cracking underneath us and I’ve never seen so much colour, what with orange, red and white flares, Verey Lights, green and blue and tracer shells and bubbles of all colours, it was just like a giant fireworks display. Black puffs and whumps. And the plane would shiver, would tell us that we were uncomfortably near some heavy flak. We made a steady run up to the target and were all waiting for the “Bombs gone” from our Bomb-aimer. It came and in one voice the whole crew yelled out to the pilot (an Aussie from Tasmania) “to get the hell out of it as soon and as quick as the kite would go” and get we did. We were flat out and weaving and dodging from side to side and up and down. A jerry fighter went past us a few yards away, but he evidently didn’t see us, and as we were both going like the hammers of hell, it was just a glimpse and that’s the best way to see them, tail towards you. We could see the fires miles away as we left, and were soon over the sea again and in comparative safety. Then the coast of good old England came into view, and a very pleasant sight. We made base….evidently we were hit over the target, but at the time we did not know it, until coming into land, when we could not get our flaps down and had to try to get in at a much higher speed than usual. Anyhow we didn’t do it, and the plane crashed through a couple of fences, turned turtle, broke in half and caught fire. We were all extremely lucky, not one of us of seven, was badly hurt. We were all shaken, bruised and had a few cuts in places, but nothing serious. I happened to be sitting just at the spot where it broke in halves and when we went back to examine the wreckage I had quite a shock, as it was just a mass of twisted metal and I didn’t know how on earth I got out of it. I must have been thrown to some other part. Anyhow when I saw the plane alight I made for the hole in the side, but wasn’t in the race to get out will all my flying suit on. I was twice as big, so ripped it off and forced my way out. I was quite OK but my legs wouldn’t work and just collapsed after I got away a bit, shock or excitement I suppose. After the doctor had a look at us, and we had a few brandies, he said we were all right…
The training time is a time of intense and brief friendship. Young people who in peacetime would be separated by the differences of rigid social classes, are all mixed up and find they get on well together. They represent the more adventurous spirits of their time coming together in a flexible discipline: the rules can be circumvented, but orders must be strictly obeyed.
Once assigned to specialized training units, flying becomes a regular event and even a daily event for some. There is the risk of dying as well. 8,000 men are lost on training courses and over 4,000 are injured.
William.J. "Billy" MOORCROFT, the navigator, receives his qualification at the end of gruelling training. He must have real maths skills and a four-dimensional vision. On board, his position is the one that requires the most concentration, a permanently switched on brain, and the computing capacity to enable him to juggle between navigation and astro-navigation. After take-off, he provides information on the course to follow in order to fit within the stream, then having reached the rendezvous point, he gives the course to the target based on the timing of the assault waves allowing for the changes of course imposed by the flight plan. He masters the GEE system Ground Electronic Engineering. Based on radar technology, the system uses signals from three stations in a 300 km arc along the British coastline. Each of these stations transmits a signal on a particular wavelength. These signals are tracked by the navigator with a T.R. 1335 receiver, actually a CRT screen on which the intensity of difference frequencies appears as blips. Should the GEE set record that pulses from two stations arrive simultaneously then the aircraft must be equidistant from the two stations. Plotted on a set format GEE map, the system allows a location to 100m at a range of 300km. Accuracy rapidly decreases up to 600 km. In addition, the navigator has to continually use a sextant to undertake astronomical fixes from the Astrodome or entrust this role to the bomb aimer if he is qualified.
Near the target, the Bomb Aimer Robert "Bob" WALKER, takes over from the navigator in the run up to the target. When the Lancaster is on its bombing run he is the most important person on board. Lying on the plexiglass bubble with his whole body exposed to shrapnel, his eyes are glued to the complex bomb sighting system. The bomb aimer gives orders to the pilot to correctly position the bomber on its run in to the target, which is then flying straight and level. All the time given to the preparation for the mission, all the attention given to the briefings, the accumulation of stress during the flight, the fear felt above the target, all this energy is focused on the single act of one man. A simple thumb pressure on the trigger causes the bombs to drop with a sudden jolt of the aircraft as it is relieved of its load and an adrenaline rush for the whole crew. It is not uncommon for a bomb aimer, with nerves of steel, to become the most hated member of the crew when he orders a second run at the target, or even a third, when conditions do not allow him to bomb accurately at the first attempt.
To reach this stage of the mission, the role of Flight Engineer Johannes.E.C. ODENDAAL is essential. Within the R.A.F., the increasing mechanical complexity of bombers leads to the disappearance of the second pilot. At first some ground engineers are assigned as flight crew. Although most are destined for this role when they enlisted some are failed trainee pilots. This work requires constant monitoring of multiple parameters of the four engines that propel the heavy bomber and its deadly cargo. The Flight Engineer’s job was complex and involved at first liaison with ground crew to identify and solve problems.
Before a sortie he is responsible for checking all electrical, hydraulic and mechanical systems were working correctly, the fuel tanks in the wings were balanced and that the engines were running at the correct temperatures and oil pressures. This included over forty outside checks on flaps and mechanical linkages, including checking for oil, hydraulic and fuel leaks and checking his own and the pilot's control panels.
Secundly, during take-off and landing he assisted the pilot with control of engine speeds, monitoring all systems and rectifying minor problems. And finally during the flight he would monitor the balance in the fuel tanks and transfer petrol from one to the other to ensure even flight.
The Wireless Operator Edwin SMITH has the most solitary job of all the crew. Acoustically isolated from others, he is listening to constant radio exchanges from either the British or Germans. He also performs rear electronic surveillance and warns the pilot of any approaching hostile aircraft. The radar ARI5664 Monica is an active system that uses a string antenna located at the tail of the bomber. The antenna emits a Doppler signal which is in return captured and allows detection at 900m in a 45° cone angle. The presence of an aircraft in this area causes sound pulses only detectable by the pilot and wireless operator. Besides the impossibility of using friend or foe IFF recognition, the limits of this equipment appear in mid-1943 when the German night fighters equipped with radar detector Flensburg can track the Doppler signal and locate the transmitting bomber.
The gunners, among them the mid upper, have the worst jobs at the hydraulic controls of their turrets. In their perspex bubbles, exposed to freezing air temperatures so deadly that it can stick skin to the metal of the machine guns, the gunners are responsible for advising the pilot of an approaching enemy fighter and for defending the aircraft. The mid upper gunner Nicholas A.B. 'Ben' ROBINSON often asked the pilot to bank on lateral rolls in order to peer into the darkness under the wings of the bomber. From take-off to landing, at times for as long as ten hours, the gunners are constantly rotating the turrets, scanning the surrounding blackness, quarter by quarter, for the grey shadow that could instantly be an attacking enemy night fighter. During an operation, the only sounds the gunners would hear, aside from the constant deafening roar of the engines, would be the hiss of the oxygen and the occasional crackling, distorted voices of other crewmembers in their earphones. The mid-upper gunner spends the trip suspended on a canvas sling seat that can be disconnected when getting in or out of the turret. His lower body is in the draughty fuselage and his head in the perspex dome. It is a lonely position removed from the proximity of other crew. Sitting suspended he does not envy under no circumstances the other gunner.
For it is certainly the rear gunner, who occupies the rear turret, a position known as Tail End Charlie, Harold MATTHEWS who is the most isolated of all. At the end of the long narrow tunnel formed by the fuselage, the tail gunner has the best visibility to detect any intruder seeking to get under the bomber. Any relaxation of vigilance could mean death for everyone on board. Whilst other crew members has some relative comfort having others nearby in the forward section of the aircraft, squeezed into a cramped metal and perspex cupola the poor rear-gunner is completely removed from his fellow crew members and has even to stow his parachute in the fuselage behind his turret. One of them states that you would then have perhaps an hour to prepare yourself mentally. The banter was always there: that was a bit of nerves. Over enemy territory, in the almost perpetual darkness, out of the corner of his eye, the gunner might think there was something out there following him, and would expend hundreds of bullets attempting to hit it. But I was lucky and terror never came into it. On the other hand, if I had any fears at all, it was the fear of the doors being blown off the turret and falling out backwards…
To ensure a better view most rear gunners even remove the perspex plates placed between the four Browning machine guns thereby exposing themselves to the elements. After his training, each gunner is able to write his name on a slate with chalk attached to the end of a .303-caliber machine gun.
At the end of their respective training three members of the future crew, including the Pilot, Navigator and Bomb Aimer, received additional training at an Advanced School.
Finally, all airmen and all specialties are posted to an OTU Operational Training Unit.
On his return from Canada, W.J. MOOCROFT joined No. 24 OTU at Honeybourne, Worcestershire in October 1942. In addition to obtaining their final certifications, it’s also at this stage that an essential process takes place: the formation of the crew. The process, by which a group of young people from widely different backgrounds become a team, is one of the great successes of the R.A.F. In view of the importance of crew selection, one might have expected that the selection would be performed on a scientific-psychological basis. It is not the case. This is one of the characteristics of the R.A.F., arguably its greatest success. Authorities will rely, as at the beginning of training, on the mix of people. The process is called crewing-up. Several hundred men are gathered in one place and it’s left to the magic of mankind. A look, a tone of voice, a smile, a sign, a lively discussion, the firmness of a handshake, and rarely chance, make a team that chooses to fly together. With typical British humour, a navigator explains that it was like a huge ballroom in which one seeks a partner to dance the whole night away. Definitely, for better or for worse .... And it was not always the cutest one who became the best flight companion ...
At the OTU, crews come in contact with veterans for the first time, their instructors, who have survived an operational tour and have long experience of night bombing. Pupils find that they look old when they are actually only 25. Training other young men is the reward for those who survive 30 operations. The risk, however, is still there as many crews and their instructor die even at this stage of training.
Having a 12 days off to recuperate, Ben ROBINSON and a friend hitch-hike around England from York to Leeds, Birmingham, Sheffield, Burton-on-Trent, Nottingham, Coventry, Derby to London. They don’t have to pay for accommodation, most meals nor drinks until they reached London. Leave in London proved very expensive as accommodation was at a premium and service’s clubs like the YMCA and Salvation Army were always full. He often stay with other crew’s families and his letters show that he travells extensively around England and Scotland whenever he can. …I have seen quite a bit since I have been here. I have been in Scotland from there to Bournemouth in the South of England , & then to Porthcawl on the Bristol Channel in Wales & from Wales to Yorkshire… He finishes by saying “I’m OK and in the pink so please don’t worry about me. I’ll come sailing home in fine style. I think this war will be over this time next year and I’ll be in good old Perth.”
In an airgraph letter of 12 November 1942, while flying within 10 squadron on Halifax bomber, Ben recounts another mishap. I am very well but have been in hospital for a few days. Have had quite an exciting time lately. I went to Italy on a raid, & when we got back to England after a long and cold trip, our plane packed up, so we all had to bale out by parachute from 8,000 feet. I got out OK but was not expecting a landing at the time I did and consequently instead of landing on my feet, landed on my back, which was very painful and I went to hospital as a result. I came out to-day, & though I’m better I am still a bit tender. I have been on quite a few raids over Germany & other countries, & sincerely hope to do the rest without any more mishap….
Meanwhile, Johannes ODENDAAL continues his training as an engineer in the TU Flight Engineer Course of the manufacturer Short at its plants in Austin Aero, Marston Green, Birmingham. He thus becomes specialist in radial engines manufactured by Bristol, especially the Hercules 14-cylinder model. He is then sent to operational unit within the 218 Bomber Squadron "GoldCoast" based at Downham Market, where he undertakes his first missions aboard the four-engined Stirling. Engineer aboard the gigantic bomber, he survived the crash of his aircraft that occurred when returning from a raid in the last days of 1942. After a short stay as instructor in an OTU at Sttutershaw, he joined 115 Squadron in early spring 1943 and will fly on the first Lancasters Mk II equipped with radial engines Bristol
For his part, after 148sqn was disbanded in December 1942, S/Ldr BAIRD is back in UK, and posted in 23 O.T.U., Pershore, where he gets familiarized with beam approach flying, totalling 2,060 flying hours at the end of February 1943.
The last step for crews before arriving at an operational squadron is a posting to a Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU), where training on heavy bombers is carried out. During this period of 3 months, airmen are trained on a particular type of four engine aircraft, either the Lancaster, Halifax, or Stirling, which they will normally use during their next 30 operational sorties.
For the core of the crew and for the navigator W.J. MOORCROFT, it is No. 1658 HCU at R.A.F. Riccall in North Yorkshire where he arrives in December 1942 as Pilot Officer. He is promoted to Flying Officer on completion of his course. There, he meets S/Ldr BAIRD with whom he begins flying on March 25th 1943. Together with their newly formed crew, they will accomplish 2 bombing operations together against Essen and Kiel on April 3rd and 4th 1943, before being posted to 10sqn.
So, at the end of their respective training, members of the future crew of the DS690, which paradoxically initially came together on a Halifax four engine bomber, have, as all other airmen, an acceptable basis to test their luck and their courage. The formula is that of an officer of Bomber Command. Caught in the maelstrom of war, these are ordinary young men placed in extraordinary circumstances, who give the best of themselves and are learning their skills in the toughest possible way.
The training is long and demanding. From a strictly material standpoint, it costs an average of £10,000 per crew member, meaning at actual value 3.000.000,00 Euros for a complete crew.. This may be a high price to pay to train a Bomber Boy, but some suicidal directives of Bomber Command will demonstrate that the life of an aviator is worth less than that in mid-summer 1943.
Further, the publication of the Butt Report in 1942 has highlighted the ineffectiveness of R.A.F. bombing. Opposing Harris, his Director of Operations was determined to create a specific force of scouts brought together in a Target Finding Force (TFF). With the support of the Air Ministry, which is often damaged by the intransigence of Harris, Portal designated Group Captain Bennett to bring together the best crews in a Pathfinder Force (PFF). The role of individual members of this Group, which represents between 5% and 20% of aircraft for each operation, is to drop flares to locate and mark the target bombing area for the stream of bombers following. Ideally, this area has the form of an angle with a 60° apex located slightly downstream of the primary target which is marked first. The roles of pathfinders are distinct depending on whether the crew is one of the finders which mark the way to the target, or one of the markers that drop red or green flares at the edges of the bombing area in front of the stream, or one of Illuminators which are responsible for constantly illuminating the target while flying in the stream.
After their training, 2/3rd of candidates are promoted to Sergeant as Edwin SMITH is on october, 10th, 1942 and as is also promoted Robert 'Bob' WALKER. The remaining 1/3rd to the rank of Flying Officer. The criteria are vague, often associated with leadership ability and level of academic knowledge. This distinction is a painful return to the reality of social classes, as a difference in rank also represents a difference in pay. Paradoxically, the R.A.F. also seeks to maintain a distinction between commissioned and non-commissioned officers. A final distinction arises as the two wings insignia is worn by certified pilots, one single wing for the other crew members.
Important as these distinctions may appear they soon fade. The crew forms an organic body and the atmosphere on board is often democratic and egalitarian. In imaginative ways and falsely disrespectful, each crew member has his own idea of his importance on board. Thus, the navigator thinks that without him, nobody can find their way back and get the aircraft home. The wireless operator knows that he is the voice and ears of the bomber and that he will give instructions or detect any intruder who would attack. The flight engineer is convinced that no one else on board is able to maintain the Lancaster in flying condition. The bomb aimer sees his task as the essential element, the justification for all the risk. He is the reason for this huge flying bomb bay. The gunners are the only ones to defend the lives of all others, the only ones to fight, the rest not having even a handgun. Ultimately, the pilot feels he remains solely responsible for the aircraft and, if it comes to it, he is supposed to sacrifice himself to allow others to have the time to bail out. However, it quickly becomes clear to all that a bomber is a huge and complex machine that requires the constant attention of everyone. They are all dependent on each other. This is very different from the life of a fighter pilot.
Pilot BAIRD’s wife remembers her husband saying he chosed this crew with great care and trains them thoroughly. He often says he is very proud of them all, considering they are an exceptionally fine crew. He adds all that will count in their favor, as complete cooperation and discipline, and confidence in each other, may mean everything in time of danger.
But 'Jock' remains an unconventional officer to who his own respect to authority is linked to the respect he can pay to the man himself. Nothing has changed from the desert hours: he hates those ones who don’t get on with the war, whatever the number of stripes sewed on their uniform sleeves.
On 26 May 1943, the crew is moved from Yorkshire to No.115 squadron at East Wretham, Norfolk. Ben ROBINSON writes I have changed my station from Yorkshire to Norfolk & have been here about a week. So far I’m not too keen on the place, it’s well in the wilds, although the countryside is very green & pretty & everywhere there are roses & you can smell them all the time. I have a new skipper now. Sqdn. Leader BAIRD, his father was Lord Stonehaven who was Governor General in Australia & he is quite a decent bloke.
Then C/O of 115sqn W/C RAINSFORD remembers that at the end of May 1943, to my surprise and joy, I had a telephone call from a senior officer in the Bomber Group in Yorkshire saying that S/Ldr ‘Jock’ BAIRD, who had been posted to a Halifax squadron, had had a row with his squadron Commander and would like immediate posting to me at East-Wretham. Knowing Jock of old from the desert days, and having a vacancy for a Flight Commander, I accepted him gladly, and being an exceptional pilot he qualified on Lancasters in a few days.
On May 28th S/Ldr BAIRD flies as co-pilot for the very first time on Lancaster KO-N. The next local flight on May 31st he is flying solo with his crew aboard DS663 KO-C… and gets his certificate of qualification day & night on June 1st. Between June 4th and 11th, the crew flies non-stop, particularly impressed by the incredible altitude of 25,000 feet accessible to their Lancaster MkII.
In the summer of 1943 on the day preceding an operation, 115 Squadron follows a certain routine. Upon awakening, the crews are still unaware of what will happen that night but will find out after breakfast. If no operation is planned duties are the same as in any air base with its string of maintenance and other chores. If a mission is to take place the crews are notified and they will check their equipment in the course of the morning. Early in the afternoon, after finishing their briefing, the officers secretly reveal the name of the target.
Pilots, navigators, wireless operators and bomb aimers then attend their respective briefings which are closed by the weather briefing. Navigators are advised on courses and turning points. The wireless operators are briefed on the selected frequencies and times of use. The bomb aimers get the details of the payload for their bomber, its composition, and the ratio of explosives and incendiaries. They are also informed of the timing of the waves and the selected colours of the target markers so that their attention is not diverted by coloured decoys lit on the ground by the German defences.
The loading is invariably made up of a mixture of high explosive bombs and incendiary bombs. The first ones piercing structures and the second setting light to buildings. The High Capacity Explosives (HCE) are packed in aerodynamic casings of 250 or 500kgs, as well as drums of 2,000kgs, or 4,000kgs more often called cookies, and 6,000kgs called blockbusters.
The incendiary bombs are composed of either 15 kg bombs or rods of 2 kgs that are packaged in the form of sticks in a small bomb container (SBC) equipped with an automatic altimeter which opens at a pre-set height. Bombs fitted with delayed fuses are also dropped to deter any intervention by the German fire service.
11 June 1943 the crew board Lancaster DS663 KO-C and take part in the bombing of DUSSELDORF with 12 other 115 Squadron aircraft. They carry 4,000kgs of high explosive bombs and 1,000kgs of incendiaries. All-up weight on take off is 62.400lb, quite usual for a Lancaster, but incredible for her crew, as stated in a logbook. WALKER proceeds to drop the bombs at an altitude of 7,300m, targeting the green target indicators (TIs) previously released by the Pathfinders. When taking a photo-flash the crew observe highly concentrated areas of fire and much smoke. For once, S/Ldr BAIRD flies back high over the Dutch coast, impressed to reach 25.100 feet
The crews constantly have the feeling of possible death or at least conceivable death and give it an almost mystical respect. With the repetitive operations and regularity of losses, death is called the Grim Reaper, as in ancient times. You become superstitious. The behaviour of other crews is observed, looking for the chop look, and other warning signs which are adopted for the future if other crews fail to return from a mission.
Codes assigned to the aircraft are no longer innocent. In the summer of 1943, for members of 115 Squadron, it was considered better to avoid KO-F as its code was available too often and the preference was for V for Victor. Men observe themselves, you watch for a change of habit, something a little different, and it is always interpreted as a bad omen. Entertainment is needed for mental balance, as are emotional and sexual relationships, which are also affected. Some Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) girls have the reputation of being chop girls and woe betide those who spend the night in their beds.
But invariably, everyone is convinced that it will be the turn of somebody else.
In the event that a bomber is missing with its crew, R.A.F. administration proceeds very quickly with the removal of private property. On the operations blackboard, the only mention of the probable death of a friend, are three letters written next to the missing bomber code: FTR for failed to return. To prevent disclosure to the enemy of any information associated with the Squadrons the more personal effects are placed in an envelope before each operation. The envelope is returned to the crew member after his return from the mission.
Otherwise, the contents are sent to a previously named loved one. Some crew members have two envelopes…
12 June 1943, DS663 KO-C joins the attack on BOCHUM with 12 other 115 Squadron Lancasters. The aircraft is loaded once more with 4,000kgs of high explosive bombs nicknamed Cookies and 1,000kgs of incendiary bombs. Following upper gunner ROBINSON falling unconscious as a result of a malfunction in the oxygen system the mission is aborted. The bombs are dropped over the North Sea.
Since mid-1942, Bomber Command has become used to limiting the number of operations to about 30 missions, before posting the crews to training units for new recruits.
On 1 May 1943 this becomes official policy. This tends to show that Bomber Command takes the proper account of the burden on the shoulders of the crew in terms of stress and nervous exhaustion. Fear is the eighth passenger. The accusation of Lack of Moral Fibre (LMF) awaits any member of a crew and the main humiliation is being degraded in front of his peers and sometimes imprisonment. More prosaically, the authorities are assured of continuous replacements from the impressive training system and, of course, the hierarchy also has an interest in maintaining an adequate supply of instructors.
On 19 June 1943, the crew of Sqn/Ldr BAIRD, still on board of KO-C DS663, participates in an operation off the Gironde estuary by dropping 4,000kgs of floating mines. This type of mission is called gardening and mines are called vegetables. The operation was uneventful off Lake Hourtin with a drop at an altitude of 300m. The rear gunner notes that the fourth mine exploded on impact with the surface. On the way home, 4 combats occur with night fighters and S/Ldr BAIRD sees an adjacent Lancaster being shot down and exploding.
Bomber Command, however, admits that there is a statistical limit to what is an acceptable loss rate. The calculation is not a matter of human resource management. At High Wycombe, they think in terms of effectiveness rather than efficiency: what percentage of losses is acceptable for crews without affecting their efficiency and morale?
In the summer of 1943 it is variable depending on the difficulty of missions and fixed between 1.8 and 4.4%. To date, scientific calculations determine that any action by a Squadron becomes ineffective if it is facing losses continuously over 8% for more than three months.
In June, the crew of Lancaster DS663 knows that 1 crew in six has a chance of completing a full tour alive. Only 1 in 40 finish 2 full tours. Experience matters but it is mainly a matter of luck. Even if you have the opportunity to leave a damaged bomber by parachute the chance of survival is still 1 in 4.
Whilst the Lancaster is known for its ability to withstand significant damage as a result of its design and the presence of a central wing spar, it is also known as the most difficult bomber to get out of in an emergency. Rather coldly, it is even scientifically established at the time that there is a 1.3 in 7 chance of getting out of a Lancaster alive against a 2.5 in 7 chance in a Halifax.
On June 21, 1943, Lancaster DS663 KO-C joins the bombing mission on KREFELD. Wing Commander RAINSFORD is at the controls and Sergeant Newton, sits as a training second dickey. 115 Squadron provides 12 aircraft. The bomb load is again made up of one cookie of 4,000kgs and 1,000kgs of incendiaries. The bomber is in the second wave and the crew notes that the glow of fires is visible from the Dutch coast. On TI's green indicators, WALKER triggers the release at 6,500m, the incendiaries are dropped but nothing else happens. The huge bomb does not fall away. Worse, it hangs askew in the bomb bay, partially retained by some hooks. After a nervous return journey, RAINSFORD manages to land the heavy Lancaster, which is still a flying bomb, safely on the runway at East Wretham at 03:45.
RAINSFORD remembers that after the bomb aimer had called out ”bombs gone”, my aircraft seems very little lighter and I could not climb to the usual safer heights of about 21.000 feet as was our normal practice whilst returning over enemy territory. I thought little of this until the bom baimer called up again to say that the Cookie had hung up and couldn’t be released. This posed something of a problem and flying back over the North Sea I discussed it with my crew…As I was quite unsure both of the security and the present position of this very large bomb I gave everyone the option of baling out over England or staying with me whilst I tried a gentle landing on our grass airfield. They ALL elected to stay in… As I started on the final approach, well aware of some tension amongst my loyal and trusting crew, the Duty Controller called me on the RT “Don’t open the bomb doors, Sir”. I replied ”You’re telling me, I’m sitting on it!”. That conversation went down in the squadron Line Book in the morning. Once again my luck had held.
We know that during training, crews get use to death because 15% of their comrades die in dramatic circumstances. But for most, this is their first real contact with the war. During training and subsequently in operational squadrons, they are detached from the human aspect of war. On board, besides the familiar faces of the other crew members, they are removed from the real world. They never see the faces of the inhabitants of bombed cities, nor those of the soldiers manning the Flak guns, nor those of crews of the night fighters. The fight is almost virtual, unreal. It is characteristic of the war in the air and is much more pronounced during night operations.
There is no feedback on the results of operations and how can airmen judge how much is propaganda in the evaluation reports?
Airmen fly high. Too high. Those who are responsible for taking the war to Germany are engaged in an exercise which is almost intangible. A kind of virtual game, can we dare to draw a parallel with the actual war and the many video games based on it. If you look at Essen or Berlin from a bomber flying at over 6,000 meters above sea level, there is nothing to convince you that it is related to real life and to the fact that the streets are full of real people and their homes. It is all a huge diabolical sound and light show. There is no way, other than in the imagination, to consider that this is a place with the familiar signs of civilization, like those that can be found at home after returning from a night operation. A German city at the time appears as flak shell-bursts, flashes of light, flames and explosions. An unreal picture.
24 June 1943, the crew, now back together again, on board DS663 KO-C participate in the attack on WUPPERTHAL with 13 other aircraft of 115 Squadron. The bomb load is the standard 4.000kg cookie and 1.000kgs of incendiary bombs. At 6,500m, before taking a photograph, Walker dropped the bombs on the red and green target indicators and then dropped red flares. The crew confirmed the existence of highly concentrated fires and tall columns of smoke.
Few airmen reveal their feelings about how history will judge the morality of their actions, as courageous as they are. That reserve masks a solid certainty about the rightness of their cause, primarily based mainly on the idea of retaliation without any notion of proportionality, which anyway was not a concern up to the Summer of 1943. It’s also the feeling that the effects of their missions, night after night, are gradually undermining the strength of the Nazi machine.
A pilot declared of course I sometimes hated the job. But I am fighting for my loved ones and for those who have already paid a high price in this fight. Not doing it would mean that I have failed them all. The raids on Berlin have special value for the crews, despite the increased risks associated with the longest distance and the best defences which have been put in place around the Big City. They somehow feel they are bringing total war to the garden of the Führer and love to think that the noise of their exploding bomb on the ground is causing havoc in the mind of one of the dignitaries of the Nazi regime. But these are not the ones who suffer.
Since late 1942, the crews are aware of the effect of the bombs on the German population. During the briefing dedicated to the operation on WUPPERTHAL, the intelligence officers make no secret of the fact that the city, which is 50km from the previously bombed Essen, is packed with refugees and that the capacity of the bomb shelters is limited. Harris, however, has chosen Wupperthal and it will be Wupperthal. The feeling of the crews, shared by the British population, is described in these terms by Minister WOOD: rather than asking if the Germans will forgive us, we should instead ask whether we will forgive them one day. And if we forgive them, hopefully it will be as late as possible. In the British Parliament, some members such as STROKES, argue that, nevertheless, Bomber Command uses the courage and selflessness of the best to perform the worst. The ambiguity of Harris’ position, between inevitable collateral damage and the intentional bombing of residential areas, however leads the Church of England to ask for more empathy.
But the British people, for the most part, do not feel guilty for reducing German cities to ashes and no distinction is made between the then Nazi state and its people. Some airmen suspect that they have no hope for forgiveness if they have to bail out over a burning city. Besides Goebbels says it does not fall within the role of the Police of the Reich to come between the German populace and the few surviving terrorist aviators. We are far from the subtleties of the Geneva Convention and we now know that more than 300 airmen of Bomber Command will be killed, lynched by furious Germans.
The world of a crew is reduced to the faces of those who compose it, their aircraft, and their next mission. As always, the action kills thinking. A gunner says that if doubt creeps in, just remember the downing of the aircraft of a friend. In general it removes all your questions.
At the heart of the battle, one feels detached from external reality, of the city that they are going to bomb. Everything is impersonal. Düsseldorf, Krefeld, Elberfeld, are just names associated with a note in a log book. Moreover, the target marking by Pathfinders adds to this virtuality. One aims at flares, not factories or houses.
The only thing that brings home reality, is the sound of torn metal after the impact of a flak shell or the tingling of shrapnel on the fuselage. And then ironically, you feel attacked, which increases the desire to fight. Crews, living and suffering in the cramped fuselage of their bomber are here to do the job and they seek above all to avoid the search lights, shells and flak, as well as the night fighters. During a bombing operation, there is nothing much exciting to do or anything which could be interpreted as glamorous. There is only a permanent tension near a highly explosive cargo, living in a metal tube with the roar of the engines and surrounded by a cold and hostile universe. Flying in a bomber is a dangerous activity. The virtual certainty of death must be faced, in the worst circumstances ever, in the deadly hostility of the night and the ice cold air.
On 25 June 1943 the crew takes a few days of well-deserved rest with leave with their families for the lucky ones. Bob WALKER is one of them. He is what might be called a jolly fellow, for not being content with being an accomplished sportsman, he is also an excellent dancer and formidable poker player. During his leave he visits his family and, on a beautiful day, many photographs are taken at his mother’s request.
Harold MATTHEWS is also with his family. His brother-in-law remembers him coming in the evening with his girlfriend to the scout hut of the 15th Croydon Scout Group on his last leave.
At the end of their leave, when they return to East Wretham, the crew members learn that their usual KO-C DS663 has been shot down on 26 June 1943 during an operation off Lorient. The crew spent the first days of July getting to grips with their new Lancaster DS690 which is allocated the then vacant KO-C code, and assigned to Squadron Leader BAIRD.
On 9th July 1943, the crew welcomes on board a U.S. war correspondent.
Max KARANT writes in his memoirs that On one occasion, the Captain wanted me to go along on a flight, to check out some work that had been done on the plane by the ground crew. I was enchanted by the big beast – the airplane, not the pilot. All the crewmembers were in place when we arrived… I was told to stand in a sort of aisle just back of the pilot’s seat. I wasn’t sitting so I didn’t have a belt. I had to hang onto any availlable handle or fixture. The pilot fired up the engines. They checked out fine, so we taxied out for takeoff. We had no payload so the Lanc leaped off the ground like a 1.000lb Piper Cub. We climbed to about 2.000ft where we levelled off, and the pilot poured on cruising power and took off cross-country. We were wearing those combination helmets containing earphones, microphone and oxygen mask so we could talk freely to each other. Soon the Captain found what he was looking for. ‘There’s a Yank bomber base down there. Let’s go and take a look’. Down went the nose, almost vertically, engines still roaring. We were heading straight for a row of large Quonset hangars in which I could see ground crews working on B-17’s. ‘Let’s wake up those Yanks’ the pilot yelled, and we went screaming over the hangars, mechanics scattering in all directions. I hung on for a dear life and yelled something like JEEEEZZZZUSSSS ! Immediately, there was a variety of laughter in my earphones.
‘What the hell are you doing ?’ I yelled into my mike.
‘I’m paying those guys back for the last time they buzzed our base’.
When we had climbed back up to 2.000ft, I asked him what the Yanks had done. ‘They love to dive right down to the grass at full bore, then go tearing across the field…’
These guys played rough. If those U.S. B-17 jockeys thought they could out-buzz the RAF, they certainly reckoned without this Captain…
After the various flight tests, the last crew training is on the defence against attack by a night fighter.....
In flight, only the pilot and the navigator are permanently occupied. The flight engineer and the bomb aimer both assisting either. For a bomber pilot, a Lancaster is pleasant to fly, but it is nothing like the sensation of slipping into the sky while flying a Spitfire. It is a burden rather than a pleasure, requiring constant adjustments and constant vigilance. The wireless operator is in a world of his own with his headphones over his ears. Positioned near the root of the left wing he sweats profusely as he is near the only hot air intake, which is taken from the inside port engine, and is supposedly able to heat the entire fuselage. That hot air does not reach the gunners who are exposed to deadly cold at high altitude and are constantly watching the darkness. There is a total lack of comfort on board. But the overall mission, the long hours of preparation and briefings, the constant stress of flying over enemy territory, everything is subordinated to a single gesture, that of the bomb aimer. One movement of his thumb releases the bombs. A gesture that once completed, allows the return to England, safety and life.
On 12th july crews are preparing the whole afternoon for a raid on TURIN. The order of resolution arrives from n°3 Group HQ at East-Wretham around 07.00 p.m. The Lancasters will remain bombed up during the next night and day.
On 13th July around 11:00 p.m., the crew embarks for the first time aboard Lancaster DS690 for an operational mission. Tonight they will attack AACHEN with 17 other 115 Squadron aircraft. The bomber, which is brand new, is loaded with its mixed load of high explosives consisting of 4,000kgs of cookie and 1,000kgs of incendiary bombs. At 11.55 p.m. the huge bomber takes off.
On the evening of 13th July 1943, shortly before midnight, the bomb aimer Robert 'Bob' WALKER embarks on Lancaster DS690, for his 30th mission.
It will be the last of his tour of operations. It actually is, but not the way he hopes for...
All is chance and Lady Luck is fickle.
Among airmen, flying is said to be like playing dice and it’s too bad for those who get the jack of spades.
Two aircraft of 115 Squadron, one of them being DS690, do not return home that night ...
W/C RAINSFORD writes years later that I think that must have been one of the longest nights of my life. The trip to Aachen was quite a short one and as the aircraft returned one by one, on the whole undamaged, there were only two missing and one of them was captained by S/Ldr R.A.G. BAIRD. I thought he had probably force-landed at one of our emergency airfields on the south coast or perhaps ditched in the sea but as hour after hour went without news I forced myself to realize that he was missing. I realized that Jock, the wild, lovely, irrepressible Scotsman, was someone I should probably see no more. I thought by now I was immune to personal sorrow and could take losses as they came but I was wrong. Jock’s death shock me greatly. I felt for a while a very deep sense of bitterness and sorrow. The feeling soon passed but in my heart something had died.
And the very same day, on july 14th at the beginning of the afternoon at 1.43 p.m., a postman of Maghull arrives at the house of Billy MOORCROFT's parents with a very sad telegraph: their son is reported missing on operation during the night...
When the family of H. MATTHEWS was informed he was missing and presumed KIA, Harold's sister Maud remembers her mum submerged by heartbreak, destroying Harold's uniform and logbook when they were returned to her by the RAF. And very sadly, after being told that the 19 years old Harold had been killed someone said to her mother "well, you have another four boys…".
Wing Commander RAINSFORD commanding No.115 squadron writes to Ben’s mother on 17 July 1943 advising her that Ben is missing. He sends her a list of the other crew members’ next of kin details and correspondence among them will quickly occurre.
The Kalgoorlie Miner newspaper reports that Ben is missing on 13 August 1943. News of the ultimate fate of the crew after the loss of the aircraft is slow in reaching the families. As late as September 1944 - some eight months, the families are still unaware of the crew’s fate except for the sole survivor. In a letter to Ivy Robinson on 21 January 1944, Alice Walker writes:…My husband thinks that our boys may also have baled out but may not have been captured, in which case they may be in hiding somewhere. On Nov 17th Mrs BAIRD, the pilot’s wife had a visit from a disabled prisoner who had been batman to a friend of her husband & knew the husband, Squadron Leader Baird, by sight. He told her he had been speaking to her husband in a German Camp just the day before he left Germany & said that the Sqdn Leader said he had crash landed an empty plane. She now firmly believes that her husband is safe & that our boys must have baled out… Ben’s death was felt keenly by his mother and his siblings for the rest of their lives. Any conversations they had with their children about Ben were always tinged with profound sadness.
* Nicholas Auber Benjamin Robinson's staff record, Z/87/8 Staff History Cards 1932 - 1970, U205.15 Officers Book and S1592 WA Staff Register, ANZ Group Archive, Australia.
Pictures credit to : RAFmod.uk, Mr Ceanan BAIRD, Mrs Avril FLOWERS, Mrs Jo ORR, Castle Archives, Mrs Avril FLOWERS, Royal Australian Air Force Archives, Mr Ceanan BAIRD, Mr Ceanan BAIRD, n.a., Mr. Philip BALL, Royal Canadian Army Archives, Mrs Avril FLOWERS, Mrs Avril FLOWERS, Mr Adrian ODENDAAL, Mrs Avril FLOWERS, Mrs Avril FLOWERS, Mrs Avril FLOWERS, Mrs Avril FLOWERS, Mr Ceanan BAIRD, wikipedia.org, Mr Ceanan BAIRD, ww2zone.com, iwm.royalairforce, avrosysdemon.co.uk, Mrs Avril FLOWERS, Mr Pierre Michiels, Mr Ceanan BAIRD, Mr Philip BALL (ORB’s of 115 squadron), Mrs Avril FLOWERS / Mr. Wim Govaerts (Sgt WALKER’s logbook) and Pete BUCKLEY.